Digital Media Comes of Age

A consumer magazine whose multimillion copy circulation has been declining for decades seeks a digital media chief. According to its recruitment ad, the digital chief’s main responsibility “will be to develop and launch profitable new digital services that increase the circulation of the company’s renowned publication.”

Do you remember when you were a child and your parents dressed you up and asked you to open the door and greet guests at their dinner parties? Years later when you were a teenager, how would you feel about doing that? Would you like that to be your main responsibility now that you’re an adult?

I’m amazed at how many magazines still focus on digital media primarily as a mechanism to drive traffic to print and reverse the inevitable decline of that traditional medium.

Using digital media primarily as a way to increase print circulation might have made a bit of sense in the Internet’s early years, when it was opened to the public in 1991. Yet when public use of the Internet entered its teenage years and began to become a mature medium in its own right, all print media companies should have acknowledged that and stopped using digital as an adjunct, billboard, or child to the parent operation. Though many magazine companies have made that change, it’s amazing how many still have not. (The same can be said about many broadcast companies’ treatment of digital media.)

Public use of the Internet will be 18 years old next year. It can still be a bit reckless and uncertain, learning its way around, but it has certainly become a mature medium in all natural ways. It’s about time that every media company began treating digital that way and acknowledging its full rights as a medium.

Moreover, when you were 18 years old, did your parents say that your main responsibilities were household chores? You probably weren’t too happy about that, but at least it was better than being a cute little doorman whose role was simply to drive traffic to print. I mentioned that many media companies have begun to acknowledge that digital is maturing. I’ve noticed that many consumer magazines, broadcasters, and newspapers have lately rephrased their recruitment ads to say that digital will “be responsible for developing and launching profitable new digital services to enhance the company’s stable of brands.”

Although being responsible for new digital services that “enhance the company’s stable of brands” is better than just “increase the circulation of the company’s renowned publication,” it’s still not a happy role for digital. Using online to enhance the company’s stable of brands means making the parent’s household shinier and more attractive for a new kind of guest. It means dusting off the old place, trying to make the legacy brands attractive online, and convincing the digital audience that you’re not a teenager driving your parents’ Buick.

I sympathize with digital media executives who’ve been put in that teenage role. I can see some of the reasons they accept it. Life is less risky and more convenient under a parent’s roof, and the allowance they get from their parents might be more lucrative than what they can get venturing out on their own.

However, the problem is that some — probably many — of those legacy brands don’t make sense to operate online. Many are brands that developed as the best of what the print medium does and are unsuited for online media, no matter how much money the parents throw that way.

While it’s OK for a legacy brand to have a digital presence, the purpose of digital shouldn’t be to enhance traditional media brands, nor to leverage those brands’ legacy goodwill online, when many are too old or can’t naturally adapt for the online environment. Nor is simply rebranding old brands a good idea. Remember Pathfinder?

Business is business and not a place for the sentimental, even those sentimental about old brands. If the legacy brand is old and tottering in its own medium, there are probably natural reasons for it. It’s not digital’s role to give life-support to declining legacy media or legacy brands. Whenever a new medium comes of age, its primary role is to venture out on its own, not prop up its parents or legacy.

Digital media is coming of age. It’s about time for digital media to venture out on its own. It’s time for media companies to stop treating it like a child.

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